Connecting: A Guide to Finding the Right Mentor

At a time when training budgets and tuition reimbursement plans are being scaled back, mentoring is a cost-effective way to attain the education you want.

By Leslie Stevens-Huffman | March 2009

When it comes to career development, you can’t learn everything you need to know through online courses, college classes or reading the latest best seller. Judgment, wisdom, appropriate actions and decision making – not purely technical expertise – lead to success and promotions. Aside from trial and error, the only way to acquire the knowledge is from a mentor, someone who’s already traveled the path.

Your MentorAccording to a report from Triple Creek Associates, a developer of mentoring programs based in Greenwood, Colo., mentees at Sun Microsystems were more than 20 percent more likely to receive a raise and were promoted five times more often than people who didn’t have mentors. And during a time when training budgets and tuition reimbursement plans are being scaled back, mentoring is a cost-effective way to attain the education you want.

"It’s important to ask mentors not what they do, but why they’re doing it," says Steven Cerri, who as president and CEO of coaches and trains technical professionals. "What you want to learn is their way of thinking, because managers get paid for their judgment."

Mentor Selection

To select the right mentor, you must first develop well-defined career goals, clear objectives for the mentoring relationship, and a list of what you want to learn. This way, you can find a mentor with experience in the role that interests you. Mentors can be peers or managers, and they might work in your company or another industry. The key is to find someone with the knowledge you’re seeking to acquire. It also helps you to have some insight into your learning style and individual strengths and weaknesses, so your mentors can understand how you learn and how they can best help you reach your objectives.

After graduating from school and working for a few years at Compuware, Anquanette Clegg decided she wanted to move from her tech support analyst position into project management. Knowing that attaining her goal would be difficult, she identified and approached a team of mentors for guidance.

"I have three mentors," says Clegg. "I call them my board of directors. One encouraged me to get my PMP certification, one helped me build my leadership skills, so I could reach my goal of becoming president of the Detroit chapter of Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA), and one gives me spiritual counsel. In addition to their experience, I evaluated their character and integrity before asking each of them to mentor me."

Since mentors serve as role models and impart their ideologies to protégés, it’s important for them to be well-respected in their field and worthy of your trust. Other ideal qualities include good listening skills, impartiality, supportiveness and being well-connected, since mentors often introduce mentees to their professional network.

Working Together

After you’ve identified a prospective mentor, schedule a meeting to assess if he (or she) has the interest and time to take on a protégé, and so you both can evaluate a fit and establish the mentoring structure.

"It’s important to establish trust, because the mentor and the mentee must agree that whatever is said during the course of the relationship stays between the two of them," says Denise Holland, BDPA national president and director of IT-SAP for Amtrak.

Usually, mentors and mentees meet monthly. An advantage of online mentoring programs is the ability to exchange information and ideas more frequently. Holland says any structure is effective, because it’s really the dedication of the mentor and the mentee that drive the relationship’s success.

If you chose an online program, experts recommend at least an initial phone meeting before both parties agree to move forward. And while a supportive attitude is important in a mentor, don’t shy away from a coach who will challenge you and occasionally serve up some tough love.

"It can be hard to accept constructive criticism," says Clegg, "especially if you feel you are right. But it really helps you learn a lot about yourself and these are things you’ll never learn anywhere else."

While Clegg spent time assessing the required commitment before setting her goal of becoming a project manager, the rigors of juggling her full-time job, personal life and the curriculum caused her to consider throwing in the towel on a few occasions. But her mentor wouldn’t hear of it.

"When I hit road blocks, she would encourage me to keep going," says Clegg. "She would say to me, ‘You can’t give up,’ so I didn’t, and now I mentor others who want to get their PMP certification."

Clegg keeps a journal, where she jots down situations and questions as they arise. Then she asks her mentors for their advice, during quarterly in-person meetings. Her next goal is to enter BDPA’s Executive Protégé Program, to prepare for a role in senior leadership.

It’s not unusual for mentees to have a series of mentors throughout their careers, extracting unique expertise or guidance from each one. "Some mentors might coach women about how to succeed in a male-oriented technical profession, while others help you acquire board room skills," says Holland. "They all bring value, and you can learn different lessons from each one, as you progress through the different stages of your career."

Mentoring Resources  

Many mentees find mentors simply by networking with other IT professionals. Others identify an appropriate role model within their company. If yours doesn’t offer a formal mentoring program, offer to organize one or suggest the idea to the CIO or Human Resources. Local IT organizations often offer mentoring programs. Some additional resources to help find a mentor or launch a program are:

Leslie Stevens-Huffman writes about technology and careers from her home in California.